Rauan Kenzhekhanuky "Digital Diplomacy and Promotion of Kazakhstan's Interests in Virtual World"



Director of WikiBilim Public Foundation (National Translation Bureau)

Digital Diplomacy and Promotion of Kazakhstan's Interests in Virtual World


WikiBilim Public Foundation (National Translation Bureau) has initiated a number of important projects to develop Kazakh sections of online platforms popular worldwide, which have a significant impact on the country's image. The foundation has implemented such projects as Kazakh Wikipedia, adding the Kazakh language to the machine translation service Google Translate, translating selected TED speeches into Kazakh, Open University of Kazakhstan (OpenU) and Open Library of Kazakhstan (Kitap.kz).

Rauan Kenzhekhanuly, the Head of the Foundation in his article devoted to digital diplomacy shares his thoughts on the challenges and new opportunities related to the use of modern information and communication technologies in diplomacy.

The concept of “digital diplomacy" has already been firmly anchored in international business and academic vocabulary. As a rule, print media do not refer to Wikipedia, but I think it will be appropriate here. Wikipedia defines digital diplomacy, also referred to as eDiplomacy, as the use of the Internet and new information communication technologies to help achieve diplomatic objectives.

The first foreign office which created a separate digital diplomacy division was the U.S. State Department. In 2002, the State Department opened the Taskforce on eDiplomacy, which was later renamed the Office of eDiplomacy. Today, the division staff at the headquarters consists of 150 people; another 935 people are engaged in online monitoring and struggle for influence in social networks in foreign diplomatic missions of the United States. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has the Office of Digital Diplomacy, which actively promotes the country's foreign policy agenda. Other countries have also been actively using digital diplomacy in recent years. More and more countries are adopting special programmes and strategies to promote their interests through the world wide web, calling them 21st Century Statecraft (USA) or Open Policy (Canada.)

A number of neologisms appeared which are related to the work of foreign services in cyberspace. Thus, the concepts of “Twitter diplomacy" (“Twiplomacy"), “hashtag diplomacy" and “Facebook diplomacy" came into common usage. One of the important points of the establishment of Facebook diplomacy as a political phenomenon was the recognition by this social network of a number of unrecognized territories. This happened due to the strong pressure of thousands of users who call themselves “digital diplomats" and identify a specific unrecognized political formation as their country. Recognition or non-recognition by online platforms becomes a significant social factor affecting territorial disputes. Moreover, the world saw the full force of social networks in 2011 during the developments in the Middle East, called the Arab Spring.

Demography is an important factor that requires accelerated digitisation of the operating methods of government services, including foreign ministries. The most socially active part of societies around the world is Generation Y, usually called the millennial generation or millennials. In 2018, young people born in 2000 become full-fledged citizens of their countries. They are the so-called “digital natives," characterised primarily by deep involvement in digital technologies. The struggle for influence on the minds of millennials can be conducted mainly through digital platforms. Therefore, a general focus on technology is no longer a reformist whim, but an imperative of our time.

When we talk about digital diplomacy, we usually mean monitoring sites, a strong social media presence through personal and official accounts and online campaigns to promote viewpoints on particular issues. Our public figures, state agencies and public and commercial organisations, as well as their press offices and PR departments, already master these tools. However, all this, for the most part, works to protect and promote the short-term personal or narrow interests of certain agencies.

Meanwhile, the depth and power of the influence of new media on modern society require a much more fundamental approach to their use. It is easy to see that it is the global online platforms that shape special contours of the new world. The world that does not recognise geopolitical boundaries, but recognises and respects linguistic differences. The world where the content of the culture of people, history and spiritual heritage of the territory is as important as the economic and political weight of a state. The lack or poor representation of a country and its (spiritual and material) culture in such platforms are signs of society lagging behind, indicators of the weakness of the real foundations for statehood.

Wikipedia, a global online encyclopedia, which being one of the most visited resources has turned into something much more than an electronic encyclopedic reference book, is one such platform. It is a non-commercial resource that exists thanks to private donations of millions of users. Articles are created and edited by volunteer users. Due to its social status and neutrality, the resource, although not academic, is very popular all over the world. Today, this resource has more than 500 million unique visitors every month. Any search engine shows a Wikipedia article earlier and above any other information or official resource. In terms of convenience, parametres and accessibility, traditional media can no longer keep up with such a platform. Therefore, the online encyclopedia becomes an important political, informational and image-building tool for everyone, without exception.

Almost every article of the encyclopedia devoted to various conflicts or disputes becomes the subject of so-called “editorial wars," when concerned parties fight for every word in a text. For instance, Wikipedia administrators had to intervene in the editorial war over the article on the Karabakh conflict. A neutral text was proposed, after which the article was closed for editing.

Therefore, today, not a single political campaign or PR event can do without a well-thought, revised or correctly written Wikipedia article.

Wiki Platform, the basis for Wikipedia, is used by the U.S. State Department for the Diplopedia project. This is a secure information system used by the State Department to collect information and organise knowledge for internal use.

In addition, Wikipedia is the most up-to-date linguistic platform that accurately describes the status and potential of each language community. Thus, the resource currently consists of 298 languages, having from zero-5.5 million articles. The largest section, which has more than 5.5 million articles, is in English. About half of the voluntary editors of English Wikipedia have PhDs; therefore, the quality and level of articles are high. In general, the state of the language sections of such global e-platforms speaks volumes about the status and quality of communities (societies) speaking any given language. Therefore, the development of the Kazakh section of Wikipedia and editing of articles related to Kazakhstan in foreign sections are an important component of the awareness- and image-building efforts of the country. The electronic encyclopedia is the basic source of information about a country for potential tourists, investors and business partners.

Google, represented by a variety of electronic services, is a similar platform. To attract tourists and create a comfortable environment for visitors, many countries turn specifically to Google. This is how special projects to develop electronic geographic maps of countries, including 3D images of city streets in interactive maps and guides, are created. Joint efforts are taken to include languages in the Google machine translation services. National museums, galleries, libraries and archives collaborate with Google to include their historical, cultural and architectural monuments in the Google Art Project, as well as to include their libraries in the Google Books services. All these are very effective tools for including the country and its culture in the global information exchange. Google does not need it; it is necessary for countries that do not want to stay on the sidelines of digital civilisation.

People who believe that we can develop such services ourselves are naïve, to say the least. After all, we are not talking about state secrets or personal data of citizens. We are talking about creating conditions for fully functional, advanced electronic services for our citizens in their native language. Localising global platforms for our needs is always cheaper and more efficient than developing our own platforms.

When we launched the Kazakh Wikipedia project in 2011, I heard from almost everyone that it was wrong to give our content to a foreign company and that we needed to develop our own electronic encyclopedias. Seven years have passed, but we still do not a have single Kazakh online encyclopedia and the Kazakh section of Wikipedia is viewed 12-15 million times per month.

The same story happened to the machine translation system. By working together with Google, in 2014 we included the Kazakh language in a group of languages supported by Google Translate. At that time, there were several initiatives to develop a domestic electronic translator, but none was successful. Thanks to the inclusion in Google Translate, users have the opportunity to cross-translate Kazakh texts into more than 100 languages. The quality of machine translation grows with each new text entry; the more often we use it, the higher the quality. Today with the support of Beeline, we are working with Google to expand the Kazakh translation from text-to-text to speech-to-speech; that is, in the near future we will be able to use applications that will translate Kazakh speech in real time. This paves the way for wide application of the Kazakh language in various modern electronic systems related to speech recognition (smart houses, voice control devices, robots, etc.)

Timely and high-quality localisation of advanced electronic services and global online platforms for our own needs represent a strategically important task that requires due attention of the state.

From a technological point of view, changing the graphic system of the Kazakh language from Cyrillic to Latin script is also a localisation of the dominant written platform for our needs. The discussion we see today in our society about the acceptability of one or another version of the new alphabet is the crystallisation of the most optimal sign configuration based on the Latin alphabet, which should facilitate the mutual penetration of Kazakh and world contents.

As you know, the transition of the Kazakh language to the Latin platform is an important project of the Rukhani Zhangyru Programme (Modernisation of Kazakhstan). I think that another, equally important direction of this programme, Modern Kazakh Culture in the Global World, should involve the use of modern electronic platforms to promote our content in the world. For instance, books translated into foreign languages should, first of all, be sold through online stores and online libraries, as well as distribution and popularisation of Kazakh cinema, music, visual arts and other content should be based on modern electronic platforms.

These are just some examples of global electronic platforms, the presence and active participation in which are an important element of modern political and diplomatic efforts.

Today, it is already impossible to imagine international relations, as well as the whole system of protection and promotion of state interests, without modern information and communication technologies. This task becomes especially relevant for us given the adoption of the Digital Kazakhstan Programme, which not only makes state institutions consider working in cyberspace as a priority, but also requires making it the backbone of service transformation.

It is a welcome fact that our Ministry of Foreign Affairs is at the forefront of these changes and actively popularises diplomacy through online platforms. Until quite recently most people considered short newspaper articles and television materials, edited strictly in accordance with official press releases of the ministry, as the only source of information about the work of the Foreign Ministry and diplomatic service. Thanks to social networks, now such official narrative is increasingly giving way to genuine interest, vivid, informative and, most importantly, personal messages (posts) of diplomats and direct participants in meetings, negotiations and trips. Less formal, friendly messages evoke more emotions and thus inspire more confidence. Supporting such messages through likes and reposts turns readers and viewers into event participants. Thus, the interests of the country and the tasks of the ministry become common for all users (citizens.) The task of digital diplomacy is to create precisely this atmosphere of empathy, participation and involvement of society in the process.

Since the very inception of WikiBilim, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was interested in supporting all our undertakings. Suffice it to say that our proactive work with Wikimedia Foundation to develop the Kazakh section of Wikipedia was preceded by a personal meeting of Erlan Idrissov, former Kazakh Ambassador to the United States, with Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia. The project on the inclusion of the Kazakh language in Google Translate was made possible thanks to the Turkic Wikimedia conference that we held with the support of the ministry. Diplomats working in different capitals around the world almost always take part in our talks with international partners on localisation of certain services or content. Together with the Committee for International Information of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we are working on the Modern Kazakh Culture in the Global World project and OpenU, an open Kazakh university, hold joint workshops in the school of diplomacy of the Academy of Public Administration.

Taking this opportunity, on behalf of the users of services, which are accessible thanks to our cooperation with the RK MFA (Republic of Kazakhstan Ministry of Foreign Affairs), we would like to express gratitude to all our diplomats participating in these projects in one way or another. We hope that shared vision, common goals and tasks will remain the basis for productive cooperation.

Created at : 12.04.2018, 19:55, Updated at : 12.04.2018, 19:55